Mahoney's Histories of Computing is published

Histories of Computing by Michael Sean Mahoney (Book Cover)

Earlier this week I received a full set of authors copies of Histories of Computing, the edited works of Michael S. Mahoney on the history of computing. These were shipped from the Trilateral warehouse, which handles Harvard distribution, so I assume the book can now be ordered. I’ll be sure to set aside one or two copies for the SIGCIS book auction in Cleveland later this year.

If you didn’t know Mahoney, who died in 2008, you can learn more about him on his personal website and on his Princeton University tribute page. An Eloge from two of his students is reprinted in the book but is also online.

Fate moves in mysterious ways – when I first met Mike as a graduate student at Penn in the mid-1990s his book on the history of theoretical computer science was expected to appear soon, following his earlier The Mathematical Career of Pierre de Fermat, 1601-1665. I little suspected that fifteen years later I would find myself charged with pulling together his second book for publication (or indeed that it would be my own first book.) I’m particularly grateful to Bill Aspray, who was the initial editor, for bringing me on board the project.

While not the groundbreaking monograph we all hoped Mike would eventually finish, Histories of Computing is a nicely produced hardcover volume, including thirteen of Mahoney’s papers on the topic from his widely cited 1988 “The History of Computing in the History of Technology” all the way through to his 2010 paper “The Structures of Computation and the Mathematical Structure of Nature.” The book is named after my personal favorite, his “The Histories of Computing(s)” which should be required reading any graduate student developing an interest in the field. I grouped the papers into three sections focused on historiography, software engineering, and theoretical computer science. As Mahoney tended to rework material from older papers into new ones it took some editing to strike and appropriate balance between redundancy and completeness, and several papers are represented by extracts.

There’s also a reasonably hefty historiographic introduction, where I try to summarize the main strands of Mahoney’s work, tie together themes that unite those three areas, and put his work in context. During the project I developed a new appreciation for the coherence of his thought across what had initially struck me as a rather eclectic set of topics, and as some of his best papers were published in journals and volumes outside the regular orbit of historians of computing there is real value in seeing the full scope of his work in one place. (Especially as the papers have now been removed from his personal website). His work will remain relevant for a long time to come.

We’re also hoping to pass the word on to any of his colleagues who knew him from Princeton, history of mathematics, or history of early modern science who might be interested in learning about his other work.

My editorial honorarium has been donated directly to the SIGCIS Mahoney Fund. We now have more than $9,000 in the fund, which will be used primarily to provide ongoing funding in Mike’s name for graduate student presenters at the SIGCIS workshop.